The experiences of the Grave Creek Indians of southwestern Oregon mirror those of the other tribes in the region. They however hardly survived the 1850s as most of their people were exterminated by settler and militia before they could be saved by federal Indian policies of removal. Hardly anything is known of the Grave Creeks, because few of these people lived to talk to anyone of their culture. Their area was south of the Cow Creek Umpqua basin and north of the Rogue River. They were related to and likely spoke the Takelma language like their neighbors. They wee never very populous, estimated at some 40 to 50 people in accounts. Their area spanned Grants Pass and it is a region difficult to avoid for travelers north or south. The original Applegate trail crosses the Grave Creek lands.
Their reputation was warlike, they did not like immigrants crossing their lands and taking their resources. They fought hard to exact a tribute from travelers and by 1854 they were evidently exhausted and nearly done in. The following letter reached Joel Palmer in November 1854 when he was in camp to negotiate their treaty. The remainder of the Grave Creek band ask here to remain in their lands and not remove.
Nov. 17th 1854 | Grave Creek, Jackson Co. O.T.
Sir the Barrers of this is the Grave Creek natives, they have requested me to write to you in their behalf. There names is as follows; Jo. formerly known as Skerix. Suill, formerly known as Thlakatte, George & Beetle. These four are the remaining Grave Creeks, the number of there women I know nuthing about althou I believe they are quite numerous. There is no Chief amongst them, and they appear to think that each of them ought to be entitled to a horse as all there people have been killed off by the Whites. You will act at your own pleasure of coarse about giving them the horses. It is there request to remain on this Illehe [Land]. At the present, for the purpose of hunting in the mountains & they say they do not wish to occupy any land that will be of any use to the whites, It is optionary with yourself But if you chose to grant them the privelege of remaining we will have no objections so long as they may behave themselves.
There is two natives I notice with them that don’t belong hear one of them I presume you have frequently hurd of as his name is quite notorious, it is Kiota & Little Jack. They belong some where on Rogue River. I believe this is all I have to yell you for them.
And I remain very resp your Humb Servt
Jas. H. Twogood
To Joel Palmer, Gen Superintendent of Indian Affairs, Origon (RG 75, M234 R 609)
How the Grave Creeks got to the point of becoming nearly extinct is a story of the Rogue River wars.
In 1851, once gold was discovered in Oregon, miners and settlers came to the southwestern region of the state in droves. The resettlers and miners took claims of land and brought in livestock that began destroying the resources of the tribes. Hogs rooted out the camas bulbs and other root crops and ate the acorns that native people depended on for winter foods. Miners fouled the water with their mining activities and made fishing difficult, while taking valuable real estate on creeksides. This forced the tribes to move elsewhere and seek to avoid the miners who were savage in their treatment of the tribes and their women. Hostilities erupted as the tribes did not at all appreciate losing their livelihoods and sought retribution from these rude invaders.
“The Grave Creek and Scisco [Siskiyou] Mountain Indians are represented to be as hostile as ever, and as likely to rob and murder on protected parties who may attempt to pass through their country. And the quiet which has for a few weeks existed is attributable, not to any treaty or efforts of the Governor, but to the sound thrashing inflicted by Maj. Kearney and others. These gallant men treated with the faithless foe in the only effectual manner, and they should be suffered to wear their hard-earned laurels.” (Oregon Statesman 8/12/1851)
“We have conversed with several persons direct from the mines, they all concur in their statements relative to the feeling entertained for the whites throughout the entire Rogue River country except the small roving and marauding band of Grave Creek Indians, with whom no treaty has ever been made, and who are no better that the bears and wolves that roam over the forests. They are a small band consisting of about 40 head. Persons passing and repassing daily without interruption, and are not compelled to stand guard , save in the neighborhood of the Grave Creeks. This is a very desirable state of things… We have no fears but that Mr. Skinner, now on his way thither, will soon render full satisfaction on this score.” (Oct 21, 1851)
Many of these editorials and letters were meant to attract attention to the conflict and directed at politicians, as the miners and setters hoped the territorial and federal armies would send more troops into the region to exterminate the tribes. In large measure it was a successful manipulation of the media.
In 1850 Joseph Lane successfully negotiated a Treaty of Peace with the Rogue River tribes as they were assembled at Table Rock. The peace treaty was made with Chief Apserkahar and his word was listened to by many neighboring tribes. There appeared to be a lull in the conflicts for a short time. In 1852 the Oregon Territorial Legislature approved the improvement of the Applegate trail through the Umpqua Basin and this would help to increase traffic through the Grave Creek beginning in 1853 (Bancroft, History of Oregon, 306). With increased immigrant traffic came increased conflicts and in 1853 there erupted a number of incidents with the Grave Creek Band.
“Throughout the spring and first part of the summer of 1853 little was heard of the depredations of the savages only one incident seeming to mar the ordinary relations of white man and native. The event referred to was the murder of two miners, one an American, the other a Mexican, in their cabin on Cow Creek, and the Robbery of their domicile. As a matter of course the deed was laid to Indians and probably justly: for the Indians along that creek had a very bad reputation. They were of the Umpqua Family, but had independent chiefs and were far more fierce and formidable than the humble natives of the Umpqua valley proper. They had committed several small acts of depredation on the settlers in that vicinity, such as attempting to burn grain-fields, out-buildings, etc., but had not it appears, entered upon any more dangerous work until the killing referred to. The unfortunate Grave Creek band allowed themselves to be mixed up in the affair, and suffered ill consequences; for a party of whites proceeded to their encampment and fired unceremoniously into it, killing one Indian and wounding another. The total number of Grave Creek Indians who were killed in consequence of their supposed complicity in the acts and in the so-called murder on Galice Creek previously spoken of was eleven; of whom six were hanged and five shot. The Grave creek tribe was rapidly becoming extinct”. (History of Benton County, 212-213)
The conflicts involving the Grave Creeks were not the only such fights happening. the whole of the Rogue River Basin was up in arms and there were murders and fighting back and forth int he region. This spurred General Joseph Lane to act to bring peace again and he met with the Rogue River leaders on September 8th 1853. That day they ironed out a new Treaty of Peace that halted some hostilities in the region. Two days later, General Joel Palmer met with the same tribes and negotiated the Treaty of Purchase to buy all of the lands of the Rogue River peoples. The Rogue Rivers then were set to move to Table Rock reservation to live in peace before their were to remove to a permanent reservation. But numerous other tribes in the region had not yet been spoken to by Lane or Palmer and they continued to have difficulties with the miners, resettlers, and militia.
“…hostilities were not suspended between independent companies ranging the country and the Grave Creeks and Applegate Creek Indians and a band of Shastas under Tipso, whose haunts were in the Siskiyou. (FN) R. Williams killed 12 Indians and lost one man. Thomas Philips Owens on Grave Creek, under pledge of peace, got the Indians into his camp and shot them all. U.S. H. Ex. Doc., 99, p.4, 33d Cong. 1st session. Again Williams surprised a party of Indians on Applegate creek, and after inducing them to lay down their arms shot 18 of them,etc.” (Bancroft, History of Oregon, 318)
By 1853 there was a feeling among many of the whites that all Indians should be exterminated for their being obstacles to free lands and wealth. Many men organized into unsanctioned militias, or rangers sought the extermination of the tribes because they knew they would never be held accountable for murdering any Indians. The Governor of the state, Curry even sent the territorial militia out to raid Indians camps in SW Oregon and in the Walla Walla region.
In 1854, the remainder of the Grave Creeks with the Chasta Costa signed a treaty to sell their lands and move to the Table Rock Reservation. Jo (Chief of Grave Creeks) probably also formerly called Skerix, was their only chief remaining and signed the treaty on November 18, 1854. Their letter of a day earlier was probably handed to Palmer the night before the negotiations. Palmer may have thought he could work something out because the final permanent reservation had yet to be decided in 1854. The Coast Reservation and Grand Ronde were not yet chosen or visited and Palmer evidently planned to wait some four to five years before removal of the tribes. But in 1855, the violence against the tribes at Table Rock became so much that five bands chose to join Chief John and fight to reclaim their homelands as the final Rogue River wars reignited.
The Grave Creeks were removed to the Coast reservations through Port Orford. They were placed on a the steamer Columbia on July 10, 1856, and a further note suggests they were bound for the Coast reservation by July 18, 1856. Palmer’s census of the steamer Indians lists 30 people remaining in the tribe.